The Heights and Depths of Extreme Filmmaking

Wade Fairley with emperor penguins in Antarctica, where he and partner Frederique Olivier endured sub-zero temperatures and lived in a hutlike construction container for seven months.
Wade Fairley with emperor penguins in Antarctica, where he and partner Frederique Olivier endured sub-zero temperatures and lived in a hutlike construction container for seven months. (By Frederique Olivier -- Discovery Channel / Bbc)
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

An epic documentary comes with some epic inconveniences. Like living in a dark cave for days on end, trying not to lose your mind. Or taking two hours to get a glass of water, which will freeze if not immediately stored in a Thermos.

Or just being really, really cold and really, really stinky -- personal hygiene hindered by teeth-chattering conditions -- for a seriously long time.

That's just a slice of the little sacrifices involved in making "Planet Earth," a joint project of the BBC and the Discovery Channel that takes viewers on an 11-hour adventure around the world, from the deepest caverns in Mexico to the highest waterfall on Earth.

Along the way, the intrepid group of filmmakers -- whose logistical challenges merit their own telling -- captured images of flora and fauna never before recorded.

"It's remote, it's uncomfortable, you have to go through those things to get something new, exciting," says cameraman Jonny Keeling, who shot footage of gazelles in Mongolia and wolves chasing caribous. "So you use that to challenge yourself. And honestly, that, for me, is the enjoyment of the job.

"But it is the kind of enjoyment that sounds slightly perverse, isn't it?"

Perverse? How about living in an old, hutlike construction container in sub-zero temperatures for seven months? That's what the two-person team who documented the life cycle of emperor penguins endured in Antarctica to get snippets of film history. Then again, Wade Fairley says he and Frederique Olivier were "blessed" because they had a microwave (though it took two hours to make a cup of tea, given that they had to ski to an ice block, hack away a chunk, then ski back to nuke it).

With no contact with other humans for weeks at a time, the twosome kept themselves sane with an iPod, some books, a yoga mat and . . . each other.

"We were a couple long before the experience," Fairley says of his relationship with Olivier, "and we remained a couple during the experience!"

(Fairley's comments came via e-mail, from a tanker returning to Australia from the Antarctic, where the couple had just made another trip for a new project. Apparently, all that together time was inspiring.)

"Planet Earth" -- Discovery's most ambitious project, with each installment costing upward of $1 million -- is a follow-up to the BBC's enormously popular oceanic series, 2002's "Blue Planet." "Planet Earth" took five years to film and spans 62 countries. "We wanted to film animals behaving naturally," says Alastair Fothergill, who helmed both of those productions. "The biggest, dangerous things are the physical things."

"Planet Earth's" making-of story spawned a companion book. In addition to the often challenging living conditions, teams dealt with difficult logistics when it came to the filming, including wild helicopter rides and icy deep-sea dives.

The camera crew tracked the extremely rare snow leopard -- "the holy grail of wildlife filmmaking," Fothergill says -- waiting four days in sub-zero temperatures before getting the historic footage. Paul Stewart, who is said to have shot the first film of a blue bird of paradise during its mating dance, sat in a bush from sunup till sundown -- not moving, not reading, just watching, for a total of 600 hours.

"If it hasn't been done, there's probably a really good reason," says Keeling, who, in the case of the gazelles, invested three years to film what would result in three minutes' worth of "Planet Earth" footage.

And then there was life deep in a New Mexican cave. To preserve its environment, everything that went in had to come back out. Everything. Porters climbed in and out of the cave in daily shifts (an eight-hour trip each way), bringing in fresh batteries, food, water -- and removing their waste in what they so delicately called "burrito bags."

These rhythms and routines were vital, says Huw Cordey, who produced the cave sequence. "It's so otherworldly -- it's not like anything you'd see anywhere else. You think you'd go stark raving bonkers in a few days, but between the six to eight of us down there, we tried to keep our normal pattern."

Cordey also helped produce a series filmed in the Gobi Desert, which is blazing hot for half the year and deathly frigid the other half. In the cold, the crew couldn't even wash with baby wipes, which froze within seconds, so the team members went five-plus weeks without much personal hygiene -- and slept with the batteries and camera fluid next to their skin to keep the film equipment functional.

Meanwhile, in Antarctica, Fairley and Olivier's hut had no insulation, so they survived by constantly wearing what Fairley calls "voluminous puffy-down clothing." And they had roughly three square yards of room between bed and table -- much of it taken up by camera gear.

"Overall, we did very well and were very content in our little working-living space," Fairley wrote. "That's when one realized how little is needed to be happy!"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company